Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

First of all, there is the issue of consent. It’s very hard to definitively establish one way or the other here. If the young woman had simply objected to being restrained and held against her will, and was abused for it, that would be one thing. But the matter isn’t so clear:

Church members, moreover, disagreed about whether Laura’s actions were a ploy for attention or the result of spiritual activity. Laura stated during the episode that Satan or demons were trying to get her. After the episode, Laura also allegedly began telling other church members about a “vision.” Yet, her collapse and subsequent reaction to being restrained may also have been the result of fatigue and hypoglycemia. Laura had not eaten anything substantive that day and had missed sleep because of the spiritual activities that weekend. Whatever the cause, Laura was eventually released after she calmed down and complied with requests to say the name “Jesus.” (emphasis added)

It certainly sounds like the young woman was exhausted and confused, but that to some extent she was also “playing along” with the idea of spiritual influence. This wasn’t an atheist held down by believers: this was a young woman who apparently fully agreed with her fellow churchgoers that Satan could be on the prowl. And after this first incident, she kept attending the church activities for days without complaint. In fact, the emotional harms she ultimately suffered seemed to have stemmed ultimately from believing their goobledygook about evils spirits too much, rather than too little.

And this leads to the key element of the decision: that the original court ruling rested on primarily emotional injuries, and that these are essentially interpretive: they’re based on the girl’s own later interpretation of the experiences she had at the church, many of which seemed to involve an actual belief in demons tormenting her. Here are the key parts of the ruling in that respect:

Laura asserted, however, that the events at the church caused her both physical and emotional injury, and the church concedes that the First Amendment does not protect it from Laura’s claim of physical injury. But Laura’s case was not about her physical injuries. Although she suffered scrapes and bruises during these events, her proof at trial related solely to her subsequent emotional or psychological injuries.

This type of intangible, psychological injury, without more, cannot ordinarily serve as a basis for a tort claim against a church or its members for its religious practices.

However, even Laura’s psychological expert, Dr. Arthur Swen Helge, admitted that he could not separate the damages resulting from Laura’s physical restraint and the psychological trauma resulting from the discussion of demons at the church. (emphasis added)

In this light, the Court is not, in fact, being quite as unreasonable as some are arguing. What’s at dispute is whether or not purely secular injuries can be separated out from the psychological ones which were the primary harms cited at trial, and the primary basis for the large civil damage award. The majority says that they can’t be reliably separated, the minority that they can.

You can agree or disagree with the reasoning given for that specific issue (and I’m not sure how I feel about it myself), but it’s a very different issue from simply whether or not a church can flat-out physically abuse someone and get away with it. No one seems to be disputing that the “laying of hands” and exorcism-like rituals are common features of church practice, which by and large don’t seem to result in anything other than elaborate theater productions.

So when PZ Myers complains that the court is arguing that “No religious beliefs are to be examined critically, no matter how disturbing they may be” he’s 100% right… about how the law is and probably should be. But courts really should not be in the business of judging the reasonableness of religious beliefs, no matter how disturbing they might be to other people, including their own practitioners (which the young woman apparently was at the time of the incidents).

The core legal issue here is not how crazy exorcism-like rituals are, but whether or not the courts can award damages based primarily on the emotional distress that certain beliefs cause believers.

Now, none of this morally excuses the members of the church, or protects them from criticism. As the court record documents, their beliefs and behavior are patently ridiculous:

On Friday evening, before her parents left town, Laura attended a youth group activity at Pleasant Glade in preparation for a garage sale the next day. The atmosphere during this event became spiritually charged after one of the youth announced he had seen a demon near the sanctuary. The youth minister, Rod Linzay, thereupon called the group together to hear the story, and after hearing it, agreed that demons were indeed present. Linzay instructed the youth to anoint everything in the church with holy oil and led a spirited effort throughout the night to cast out the demons. Finally, on Saturday morning at about 4:30 a.m., Linzay gathered the exhausted youth together to announce that he had seen a cloud of the presence of God fill the church and that God had revealed a vision to him. Although exhausted, the young people assisted with the garage sale later that morning.(emphasis added)

I’ve asked this before, but by precisely what mechanism would an intangible spirit, even an evil spirit, be afraid of or in any way concerned about, for instance, “holy oil” smeared on physical objects? Presumably spirits don’t need to touch physical objects to fly around, so avoiding the oil would be easy for them. Are the spirits then, perhaps, actually more affected by fumes from the oil? Does whatever “holy power” is put into the oil evaporate with the fumes and thus fill the church, or does it stay in the oil? What is the evaporation temperature for holy power anyhow?

And honestly, you have to wonder about the mechanism of the claimed protective effects. I’m an atheist, and the name of Jesus doesn’t hurt to type or write or think or anything else. Are demons with incredible powers we can only imagine really wussier than atheists when it comes to the word “Jesus”? By what mechanism does the name of their enemy harm or threaten them in any way? It’s like Cobra Commander being unable to speak the words “GI Joe.”

Seriously: I’m a guy that likes explanations. And none of this nonsense adds up to be anything other than cheap superstition (of which the idea of magic words and rituals that manipulate symbols in order to affect reality are a basic staple), as much made up on the fly as the kid who claimed he saw a demon running around (what, did it’s invisibility cloak slip for a second?).

The church’s ready-made defense for things going wrong during a “laying of hands” is also rather vile and self-serving:

Within our church, it is not unusual for a person to be “slain in the spirit.” This is a biblical experience, related in several accounts of the Bible. When this happens, a person often faints into semi-consciousness, and sometimes lies down on the floor of our church. It is our belief that this is a positive experience in which the holy spirit comes over a person and influences them. It is our belief that the holy spirit is not the only spirit that can influence a person. Evil spirits can move and can torment persons. Also, it is possible that a person (particularly a young dramatic person such as Laura Schubert) can take advantage of the attention that this activity brings. They can fake the entire experience in order to draw attention to themselves.

When a person comes forward in the service and begins having one of these experiences, it is sometimes difficult to discern whether: (1) the person is having a positive experience with the holy spirit, (2) whether there might be evil spirits engaged in warfare against the holy spirit, (3) whether there are emotional issues are [sic] involved, or (4) whether the person is faking the entire process in order to gain attention. Discerning between these various influences and factors is a matter on which even pastors within the church might disagree . . . .

Note what isn’t included in this list: any possibility in which it is the church leaders themselves who are ever mistaken or at fault for causing or exacerbating a situation. It’s either Jesus, demons, they’re emotional wusses, or they’re liars. The church doesn’t even consider the possibility that they were at fault for misinterpreting mere signs of exhaustion, attacking and restraining a young woman over them, and that her subsequent utterances and behavior were simply due to her objecting to this ill treatment (although again, the evidence here is conflicting, which is why it’s not as easy to sort out).

I’m not religious, obviously, but I’m generally better disposed to the stuff when it’s all about taking responsibility, rather than simply an exercise in running away from it.

3 Responses to Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

  1. DRM says:

    So suppose instead of “just” falsely imprisoning and physically restraining the young girl for several hours , the Priest handed her a glass of kool aid with poison secreted within. The priest is convinced, as are all the parishioners, that by praying hard enough the poison can be targeted to the demon and away from the girl. The young girl has in the past gone along with such belief but was not consciously aware when she drank the kool aid that it was poisoned. Further suppose that instead of dying from the poison, she merely fell asleep and awakened a couple hours later with a terrible headache and high fever. In a couple days all the physical symptoms from the poison had worn off. Later it dawned on her that her church and friends had come very close to killing her and she becomes distraught, withdrawn, frightened and non-trusting. She later mutilates herself and attempts suicide.

    Tough luck for her if she’s in Texas and the crazies are still in charge of the state Supreme Court.

  2. Bad says:

    Your hypothetical is bizarrely convoluted: you have a poison that isn’t actually a poison or something. All of this misses the point in any case. If physical injury was done to her against her will (like making her drink poison unknowingly), and they made a case out of that, that would be one thing, and you could probably nail them on it. But the case here revolved primarily around emotional harms resulting from ptsd and being told that there were demons in her. That would in some sense actually be somewhat of a hard sell even without the religious aspects.

    The reality is that people being dicks to someone, and that treatment leading people to hurt themselves and even to attempt suicide, isn’t really a crime. Particularly not when those people never expected or intended to cause torment in the first place.

  3. Grendel The Martyr says:

    This case does seem one of those where you (as a rationally thinking atheist) don’t particularly like the implications of the ruling but understand and agree with it on its legal merits. Sort of like “while I disagree with what you say, I defend your right to say it…”

    Reading the provided case particulars, it sounds like she needs to fire more than her church, but her lawyers too. They should have left out the nearly impossible to prove emotional distress and gone instead with the objectively provable physical injuries.

    In the big picture, you’d think any sane adult (is age 18 an adult in Texas?) who consents to a church ritual that is entirely consistent with his or her religious beliefs deserves what they get. She didn’t sue over the physical injuries she received, but the sorts of emotional effects she endured are an expected result of the ritual, entirely predictable and foreseeable by any reasonable person who consents to the ritual. I strongly doubt she’d never seen the ritual performed in her church before. This would change, however, if the church’s doctrines and practices included activities that are otherwise illegal, like sexual abuse of children or sacrifices.

    If one could sue one’s church for psychological damages, it would be the end of churches and religon as we know them (let’s get to work on it, j/k). A common scenario is the church member and religious believer who loses faith and suffers psychologically for it. If you think about it, losing faith is an entirely reasonable thing to do, perhaps the best thing one could do for oneself if one were previously praying for a cure to cancer instead of seeking medical treatment, or praying for stock prices to rise, etc. The lawsuit would be over psych damages suffered over discovery that the church/religon’s claim that prayer works is false.

    Alas, virtually everything asserted in religion and other forms of woo emits safely from the Zone Of Unfalsifiability, which is an excellent prophylactic against lawsuits. “Emotionally distressed? Perhaps she is, but you have not proved it’s due to our exorcism ritual…”

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